Group Unveils a 'Model Policy' for Handling Student Data

September 06, 2016

An ad hoc group of academics, tech-company executives, and policy makers convened earlier this summer to identify the ethical norms colleges should use in handling the reams of data they’re increasingly accumulating about their students' lives in and outside the classroom.

On Tuesday the group made public the summaries of that work, with a pledge from the convening’s organizers that the next step in the process would be enlisting a broader network from the academic and business worlds to begin creating concrete "responsible use of student data" policies for the information on students produced from learning-management systems, automated courseware, registration portals, and other electronic systems.

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Today, says Martin Kurzweil, an organizer of the June convening, known as Asilomar II, most institutions either have taken a laissez-faire approach to the data-policy issue or have formed policies that are focused primarily on privacy and technical security.

"Neither of those is a good place to be," he says. The former could be too lax an approach to protect students’ rights; the latter could inhibit the creation of systems to improve student learning or retention because it could block the kind of data sharing across institutions — or even within one college — that’s necessary to spot students at risk of dropping out or to improve teaching through so-called adaptive-learning courseware.

Mr. Kurzweil, who is also director of the Educational Transformation Program at Ithaka S+R, a nonprofit education consultancy, says colleges need to "shift from a compliance mentality to a responsibility mentality." That means not abusing the data they collect but also intervening appropriately when the collected data indicates that doing so could avert a problem.

The materials released on Tuesday include summaries of Asilomar II discussions on three broad topics: the use of data in scholarly research about student learning; the use of data in systems like the admissions process or predictive-analytics programs that colleges use to spot students who should be referred to an academic counselor; and the ways colleges should treat nontraditional transcript data, alternative credentials, and other forms of documentation about students’ activities, such as badges, that recognize them for nonacademic skills.

Ithaka S+R also released a paper, "Student Data in the Digital Era," that provides an overview of some current practices.

One principle that emerged strongly from the Asilomar II participants was that students should understand how data on them is used. That’s reflected in a model policy, released on Tuesday, that includes a discussion of the meaning of "shared responsibility" when it comes to student data. "Instructors, administrators, students, and third-party vendors all contribute to the process of data production," the model policy says. "All of these parties deserve to have a shared understanding of the basic purposes and limits of data collection."

The involvement of third parties — often private companies whose technologies power the systems universities use for predictive analytics and adaptive courseware — adds an extra layer of complexity to the discussions.

"There’s a great deal of anxiety about the relationship between universities and the many vendors they use to generate data," notes Mr. Kurzweil. So participants in Asilomar II pointed to the need for some model policies that could be used in contracts between vendors and colleges.

Such an approach, he says, could also help advance the overall effort of producing new norms. Today, he says, there’s a wide variance in higher education in how institutions approach those issues. "Everyone is just trying to figure it out on their own right now."

Over the next six months, he adds, he and the other organizers of the group, including Mitchell Stevens of Stanford University, hope to begin creating a broader network of interested people and organizations to develop policies and approaches. "This isn’t the conclusion of the work," he adds.

Goldie Blumenstyk writes about the intersection of business and higher education. Check out for information on her new book about the higher-education crisis; follow her on Twitter @GoldieStandard; or email her at

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